Colleges should offer 3-year bachelor's degree, Stanford president says 4-year program called unfocused, inefficient

January 26, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stanford University President Gerhard Casper has called for a reexamination of the notion of a four-year undergraduate education, which for over three centuries has been the cornerstone of American higher education.

In an interview, Dr. Casper said that the rising costs of a college education have made him question whether it is cost-effective to have most American undergraduates spend four years in a relatively unfocused course of study that does not necessarily qualify them for entry to the labor market when they graduate.

"We all think of it [a four-year college education] as a law of nature, a rite of passage," he said. "We will have to ask ourselves whether in the long run and in the present format it is something we can afford."

Dr. Casper, who succeeded Donald Kennedy as president of Stanford last September, is the first head of a major American university to call for such a re-examination. It comes at a time when a growing number of students, and their parents, are questioning how useful undergraduate degrees other than those in applied fields, such as engineering and pre-medicine, will be in an uncertain job market.

His comments, which he described as a "metaphorical vehicle" to examine undergraduate education, were welcomed by several leading educators.

Others said that the generally poor quality of high school education in the United States compared with that in other countries argued against considering a shorter undergraduate education.

Deeply engrained in American college life is the notion that undergraduates should have a broad interdisciplinary education lasting four years, a concept that Harvard adopted from Oxford University when it was founded in 1636.

England has long since changed to a three-year baccalaureate degree.

Ernest J. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching, and a former U.S. commissioner of bTC education, called the four-year bachelor's degree an "accident of history" and said it was high time that it be re-evaluated.

"The simple truth is that we are more sure about the length of the B.A. degree than about its content," he said. "We know how long it should take, but we are often totally confused about what students should be studying."

Dr. Casper said this extended and often unfocused exploration, at an annual cost of close to $25,000 a year, is something American society may no longer be able to afford.

Dr. Casper, who studied law in his native Germany before coming to the United States, said that the United States is the only developed country in the world where undergraduates are not engaged in professional study.

"If resources were available, I'd say four years are wonderful, the more the better," he said. "On a cost-benefit analysis, there will be more questions as to whether these four years are sustainable in the long run."

Dr. Casper said he was not necessarily advocating a shorter degree, although he said that if students desire it, ways should be found to "expedite what they want to get out of college." Nor, Mr. Casper said, was he proposing that undergraduate study be more vocationally oriented.

But he said students should be given more guidance on how their studies fit in with their career interests. "What we do owe the students is a clearer discussion of the choices that are out there, and what careers are linked to what kind of preparation," he said.

One of the few other college presidents to address the issue of the basic structure of undergraduate study is Frederick Starr, head of Oberlin College in Ohio. Mr. Starr said students who come to college with an advanced high school education should be able to earn their degrees in three years if they wanted to.

He blamed the insistence on a four-year degree in part on private colleges who wanted to prop up their enrollments. "Unfortunately for too many schools their principal concern has been bureaucratic self-preservation rather than the educational interests of students," he said.

However, Frank Rhodes, president of Cornell University, said that it was not possible to directly compare the United States with European countries.

"European students come to college with a much higher level of preparation and specialization than in the U.S., and that is not likely to change in the next few years," said the British-educated Dr. Rhodes. "We also educate a much higher proportion of our population than any other European country, and that is clearly a factor in the length of B.A."

And Brown University President Vartan Gregorian said that, if anything, a bachelor's degree should be lengthened to five or six years, because of the exponential growth of knowledge in the 20th century.

A shorter degree he said could lead to only the sketchiest knowledge of key subject areas, providing what he termed "education information" but not knowledge.

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